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I checked my office voicemail last week and stammered at the unexpected message. A fellow local musician had passed on the word that the Lonely Hearts Club, that recently established joint on East Washington for good eats and great music, had been boarded up and slapped with a "For Lease" sign. At first, I couldn't believe it.
Not wanting to leave the grapevine unchecked, I made a few calls. I found that the news was, in fact, sadly true, and that the badly-needed venue, along with its stunning collection of Beatles memorabilia, would no longer grace the streets of downtown Ann Arbor. I rapidly figured that my band's aim of packing a good-sized downtown show would similarly not get its fair shot, our booking there now as vanished as the decor.
What rapidly became less and less surprising as I thought on it was the apparent reason for which the club folded. Of course, there are always many reasons for these things; the financial challenges of running a business in town are many, and new ventures and old standbys alike often fall by the wayside in the turns of the tide. Foremost, however, in determining the sad fate of the Lonely Hearts Club, was reportedly an unwillingness on the part of some key local residents to tolerate the frequent live music and periodic crowds.
Now things started making sense, but in that way that only the rare few get to be happy about. This is not the first time in my travels amidst the local music scene that I've watched some outstanding musical efforts lose out to the whinings of a few sleepy landlords and towndwellers. Whether it be in the form of early curfews on the few establishments that somehow manage to walk the chalkline, or via the outright hassling or dispersion of both indoor and outdoor venues and events, the rolling up of sidewalks in Ann Arbor that had long puzzled the likes of me was suddenly becoming far less mystery than tragedy.
Never mind how badly hang-outs like the Lonely Hearts Club are needed in this town. Places like the Arbor Brewing Company are a super start, but we need bigger, more specifically musically oriented locations, and more of them. Try to name a family-friendly music venue bigger than the Espresso Royale Cafe and smaller than the Ark that has a prayer of being visited by a University student living on campus. Look for a place that has visibility, capacity, character, a full menu, a great sound system, and a staff for whom musicians are more than an annoyance, all of which the Lonely Hearts Club provided, anywhere in town that an up and coming local band has any hope of filling. Please call me when you find the downtown tavern or cafe where more than a few dozen locals can check out one of the hundreds of fantastic performing groups this town has to offer. Please forgive me if you get the machine.
Now, one of Ann Arbor's few precious steps in the right direction is gone as suddenly as it came, perhaps owed largely to a few occupants of a forcefully tranquil street. Cut to the lively scene of a town like Madison, Wisconsin, or might I even mention Greenwich Village, where a good friend, with his two-room apartment on MacDougal Street in the heart of the cultural festivities, simply accepts that the crowds and bustle roll well into the anti-meridian hours of the night - and loves it. It's quite a small price to pay for being across the street from The Blue Note, and less than a few blocks from a fathomless cornucopia of some of the sweetest music, arts and food possibilities in the world.
How dare I make this comparison, you ask? Because Ann Arbor is a dam of culture that's cracking at the seams. This town's got enough talent in it to be the Mecca of the mid-West for far longer than the college football season, folks, but walk around at 1 AM on a Saturday and see how much of it manages to persist past bedtime: not enough.
Please don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about Mardi-Gras-style wild partying here. I don't wish to see Ann Arbor become an oozing chaos of drunken fools any more often than it already occasionally is. I still abhor, as I did while a student here, the spurious parades of idiocy after sporting events that leave windows broken and tear gas clearing along the sidewalks of South University. I have no wish to see the Few, the Loud, the Irresponsible be the norm or the hallmark of late-night culture in Ann Arbor.
If anything, we ought be offering the community some better options. Deepening the possibilities of local culture in and around the campus area beyond those presented by the bar scene, be it during the evening or the wee hours of the weekend, likely only stands to improve the environment to which impressionable students and bored locals can turn. We've got the arts, we've got the audience, each a few times over what the strips in town currently dish out. So what's the problem?
For a long time this had escaped me, but now I think I know. The conflict is with whomever started calling the police when the campus a cappella groups came to sing in the resonant hallows of Nickel's Arcade, a tradition of sorts for the vocal artisans of the U, at nine o'clock on a Friday night. The trouble is the few landlords and residents who want the status and convenience of an East Liberty address with the peace and quiet of the suburbs. Of course, these people are just folks like us, making a living, and are even in the legal right here, but why live in the center of what may be the nicest cultural wonder in the mid-West only to squelch it out and hold it back?
No offense people, but move to Saline. Or trade in your high rent or a little equity for a house on Third Street if you still want to walk to town. Please make some room for those of us stuck out in the silent culs-de-sac of the outskirts who'd desperately love to be able to slip out for a cup of java and some blues guitar at a cozy sidewalk cafe on an August midnight.
As for the Lonely Hearts Club, we for whom it was named will have to merely hold our hats to our chest and shake our heads, knowing that any passers-by who might be dreaming musical dreams to the "For Lease" sign rest only to fall to the same powers that keep the streets of our would-be Mecca bereft of the Word.
(c)2000 Joseph Mancuso. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 30 August 2003 (posted)